If recent news stories are any indication, the general public of the United States is not comfortable with personal data getting into the hands of the government - the revelation last week concerning the National Security Agency's collection of private phone records was met with much criticism from journalists and private commentators. However, when it comes to health care data collection, the public attitude is very different: with health industry data, it's the more, the merrier, and that was especially true earlier this month at the fourth annual Health Datapalooza.
Health Datapalooza was conceived in 2010 as a part of government efforts to increase the availability and transparency of health data. The conference brings together all kinds of people involved in the health care industry: businesses, government agencies, academics and other advocates and individuals. At Datapalooza, these participants find out about newly available health data, and learn how increasing access to industry information is leading to new health care technology. Panels, seminars, exhibitions and demonstrations all occur during the two short days of Datapalooza.
Especially exciting at this year's Health Datapalooza was the Apps Expo, wherein conference-goers had the chance to interact with new health data applications, and talk with the developers about their technological creations. Numerous apps were presented, having been specially chosen by Datapalooza organizers. For example, one app featured this year was a piece of technology called FAIR Health. The program is a cost estimator; using publicly available data to help patients predict their out-of-pocket costs before visiting a doctor. The FAIR Health mobile app can also give a patient more information about pricing schemes when visiting a doctor inside or outside of their normal insurance network.
Another intriguing app at Health Datapalooza 2013 was MedWatcher; a tool that uses data mining as well as crowd sourcing to look out for reports of adverse reactions to drugs, vaccines or medical equipment. MedWatcher is one of many apps designed to use public health care data to track information about drug safety and adverse drug events. Once that data has been collected and published, app users have easier access to important health care information, in an easy-to-understand format.
This year's Datapalooza was preceded by an important announcement from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that they would be releasing a significant amount of health data to the public. It's the first large scale data release of its kind, and the announcement from HHS was met with praise from the sorts of businesses that use health data to develop apps and other industry-focused technology. The HHS data comes from public health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, as well as other sources. Included in the data release is information about the average charges for the 100 most common inpatient procedures; reports from various counties about Medicare patients with chronic conditions; and the prices and quality specifics for 30 outpatient procedures.
Secretary to the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, has commented that this release of data is an important part of the HHS's goal to make health care data more transparent and widely available. Sebelius was quoted in a June 3 press release from the HHS Press Office as saying that better data can help customers make better health care decisions; patients are empowered through this access to information.
However, some private companies in the business of health care data say that the HHS hasn't done enough. AthenaHealth for example, is a company that uses health data and new technology to help hospitals and other health care organizations improve practices and reduce costs. CEO of AthenaHealth Jonathan Bush has said that the HHS should publish more data: "Thank-you, Secretary, for releasing 30 of 30 million things you need to release," was the CEO's strong response to Ms. Sebelius's announcement.
AthenaHealth and other, similar companies can save hospitals money by observing industry trends and creating models to explore plans for reducing costs and improving patient results. On their website, AthenaHealth claims that it can increase the revenue of medical care providers by an average 8 percent, simply by using public data and electronic records to improve quality of care and medical practices.
Hospitals may also be interested in the services of a health care data company such as AthenaHealth in order to reduce patient readmissions. At the moment, hospitals must pay sometimes steep fines for having too many patients that return to the hospital. With enough information, a health data company can predict which patients are most likely to be readmitted, and hospitals can then focus efforts upon better care for those patients. The result should be better health for medical consumers, and lower costs for hospitals. If the cost of a data company is less than the potential fine for readmitting too many patients, hospitals will absolutely pay for the services of these health data specialists.
Clearly, it is an exciting time for health care data. In terms of patient care, hospital costs and private businesses, it seems that nearly every aspect of the industry stands to benefit from better access to health information. As more data is released and collected, industry practices and medical technology will no doubt improve as well.